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Sports Illustrated does Rodriguez no favors in Chicago with whitewash feature

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As encouraging as the things coming out of Nelson Rodriguez's mouth have been in the last week, his constant praise of ownership - and Sports Illustrated's witless boosting of those ideas - reflects some underlying variables simply won't change

We are counting on you to cut through the BS, Mr. Rodriguez, not multiply it.
We are counting on you to cut through the BS, Mr. Rodriguez, not multiply it.

Nelson Rodriguez, all agree, is a refreshing blast of competence for a Chicago Fire front office which has struggled to do the little things well. His first-week press tour began with a talk with Orrin Schwarz, where the emphasis was a frank acknowledgement that the club has fallen short of everyone's expectations, and a pledge to do better.

Around the same time, a feature along those lines from Sports Illustrated's Brian Straus went up. This one, though, had a far different target: The #HauptmanOut movement. Facing a national writer without Schwarz' intimate knowledge of the situation, Rodriguez counter-attacked against supporters' criticism with a picture of the Fire investor/operator as deeply invested, both financially and emotionally.

This is the attack on #HauptmanOut: In the face of facts like these, a group of hard-core supporters protesting against ownership starts to look less like people of principle speaking truth to power, and more like a group of spoiled fans who resent having to wait for fate to make its slow turn. And it would've worked, too, if it weren't for those meddling facts and their lack of fact-i-ness. Instead, it becomes another demonstration of the 'Sadly, no' principle of PR bullshit.

Sadly, no

The meat on the bones of these claims are summarized in the story's eighth paragraph:

The Los Angeles-based investor took over in mid-2007 and hasn’t been shy about spending money. He put $3 million toward upgrades at the stadium, which is owned by the city, and paid $20 million for the PrivateBank Fire Pitch, a public field complex on Chicago’s north side. Hauptman injects more than $1 million per year into the Fire’s academy, which is fully funded down to U-10, and has tried to sign big-name players like Didier Drogba and Jermaine Jones. According to the MLS Players Union’s September figures, the Fire’s first-team payroll ranked 11th in the 20-team league.

This is a gaping maw of half-truths.

- The $3 million claim for Toyota Park is a head-scratcher right from the get-go. Are we talking about the Second Star Club here? Because that cost about $2.5 million, and the word is that Hauptman paid for it. It's a very, very nice set of luxury suites. The Village did revise its Toyota Park books for 2012 to include ~$2.5mm for 'suite upgrades,' but no one from the Village has ever confirmed this was the Second Star Club, so we'll just leave this in the 'Hmm, maybe he did pay for it' column.

As with everything else from the Fire, the truth is a closely-held secret. We don't know how much Andell Holdings has invested, and have been lied to often enough to look askance at claims made in absence of proof.

- We're getting into weird-land in a serious way with the mention of the PrivateBank Fire Pitch. Yes, the bill for the north-side soccer dome was pretty steep, but we're talking about a real estate investment in a major metropolitan area with a pre-arranged 12-month income stream here - It's not that much money. And it's an investment that accrues zero benefits for the Fire first team. It is a separate business for which the Fire part of the name is just a bit of MBA cross-branding hoo-haw.

Yes, the Fire first team trained there a few times in preseason. My sources tell me they had to pay to rent the building, which has no locker room, no medical facilities, no film room, and no business masquerading as a proper training facility for a first-division professional soccer club.

- 'Injects' more than $1mm in the Academy? Isn't this called investing in youth development, and a requirement of ownership in MLS? I believe the 'fully funded down to U-10 level' is true for the core Academy teams - not to be confused with the larger network of Chicago Fire Juniors clubs which are still pay-to-play.

- Finally, 11th in payroll in a 20-team league represents 'top third, top quarter' investment (per the Schwarz article)? This sounds like a claim made on one of those anti-Common Core memes that bounce around social media. 11th in payroll isn't top half, and even that claim is a half-truth when one factors in the fact that Shaun Maloney and Gilberto's salaries were a push and the Fire received a transfer fee for Maloney.

Peering into Hauptman's soul

It gets even goopier when Rodriguez starts freestyling on Andrew Hauptman's emotional makeup. Let's go to paragraphs 12 and 14 of Straus' feature:

"It kills Andrew, eats away at him, that the team hasn’t had on-field success. He’s hurt by it. I dare say he’s embarrassed by it. No person who cares as much isn’t affected by that, and he does care … I think Andrew is misunderstood. Maybe his humility has worked against him because he hasn’t come front and center. But I know from my time at the league office and am quite certain based on the conversations we’ve had, that he’s committed to building a model club in MLS and winning is a big part of it."

"Part of the conversation that Andrew and I had recently, which led to my coming here, he said, ‘I reflected on my notes from our conversation and I realized that there were certain things you mentioned that I either wasn’t ready to accept or I didn’t accept, but I understand now.’ That is an incredibly humbling statement," Rodriguez said. "He is a big reason I wanted this job. I do believe that he’s humble. I do believe he listens and takes feedback."

These are direct attacks on the emotional planks of #HauptmanOut: That Andrew Hauptman is a vulture capitalist whose underinvestment in all areas of the club is directly tied to his lack of an emotional stake in actual football outcomes. That he's a vain, thin-skinned inheritor of vast wealth whose understanding of the club's cultural traditions runs from shallow to non-existent.

Here, Rodriguez gives a variation on Eddie Murphy's classic "Who you gonna believe - me or your lyin' eyes?" Because, clearly, it's been more than two years since Mr. Hauptman either wrote or ordered the writing of the Editorial, which included the timeless phrase "the inclusive and authentic nature of [the club's] culture starts from the top down." We're being told that, whatever his previous evidence of being a tantrum-prone dilettante, we've misunderstood Andrew. He's approachable. He's humble. He's committed. He wants to win, and is embarrassed by the failure to do so.

So why didn't this approachable, humble guy apologize personally for the ridiculous words from two years ago? (Don't bother looking for those timeless gems on the Fire website. They were removed without comment last year; the best we can do now is a Section 8 thread which preserves the Wayback Machine links and the text of the Editorial.)

A familiar MO

All of which brings long-time supporters back to some familiar ground with Mr. Hauptman. As with Atul Khosla's mumbled apology for the Editorial during a preseason forum, here, again, we have a club executive standing up in public to correct the record: Andy's really humble, you guys! He's super misunderstood!

I'm sorry, Mr. Rodriguez. I hope your competence makes a difference for the Chicago Fire. I hope your leadership means that, in the not-too-distant future, the Men in Red have a real training facility, and top-class medical staff, a USL affiliate and a public plan for accomplishing these and further goals. But signing on for the continuation of the mendacity around the leadership of this club is not a great start, in my opinion.

Authentic people do not speak through their employees. Inclusive people don't refuse to look critics in the eye. And humble people never, ever talk about humility.